Here's something that I read recently: “In this week's video, Prudie counsels a woman who is concerned about the gluttonous eating habits of her daughter's friend.”
Then comes the video, a cartoon to illustrate the letter of a “concerned parent” to Slate magazine advice columnist Dear Prudence (Emily Yoffe). I don’t need to describe this video. It speaks for itself, and, frankly, I couldn’t do it justice in words. There is no possible way to explain how offensive and humiliating this video is. Just watch it.
But this is a written article, so I will have to make a decision about the many ways to tackle a piece about this video.
I could provide you with facts about the human body, the proven genetic connections regarding body mass, and biochemical mechanisms that occur in the brain impacting weight, involving for instance serotonin and dopamine. I could discuss the sixty-billion-dollar-a-year U.S. diet industry and the fact that well over 90 percent of people who lose weight gain that weight back and more within five years.
I could talk about the medical industry and medications that cause side effects like anal leakage and aid a person in losing, on average, five pounds -- or the medications taken off the market because the side effects were frequently death. I could get into the surgical procedures that have a higher rate of sickness and morbidity than any other elective surgical procedure legal in the United States, and where the side effects include chronic malnutrition, frequent reparative surgeries, and eventually weight gain of at least 50% of what was lost.
I could discuss discrimination and the Yale studies that demonstrate that weight discrimination is now more prevalent than gender or race discrimination. I could also tell you about size activism or the rate of eating disorders in our culture, and that the most effective tool to date has been intuitive eating (also known as mindful eating) which is widely supported by those who believe that the Health At Every Size (HAES) paradigm is far more effective for long-term health than any weight loss strategy.
Or, I could talk about shame. I could tell you about the more than 300 hours of interviews I have of people who were or are currently fat children, the consequences of shame used as a tool to control eating behavior and weight, and the profound damage it does to a developing mind. You see, I am currently working on a book on this very subject ("Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences").
Since the primary sage advice Prudence offered was to anonymously contact the child’s pediatrician (to what end it is not clear, as the pediatrician surely has a scale, is not a dietitian, therapist or social worker, is unlikely to do genetic testing, isn’t necessarily knowledgeable about weight issues, and doesn’t have a crystal ball to examine what actually happens in the home), I will start with pediatricians.
From my extensive research of actual people, what I have found is that pediatricians, with their lack of time, insight, and proper training, often prescribe diets to children, or simply tell the parents to do a better job -- whatever that means. Parents don’t really know what to do with that information, and in a culture fixated with fixing fat, take steps that, while well intentioned, cause lifelong psychic and physical damage.
A good 50 hours of my more than 300 hours of interviews is about what happened when a doctor, in 15 or so minutes with a patient, prescribed some sort of “weight plan.” In short, this is the common result: Both the parent and child feel helpless and ashamed; the parent implements attempts at behavior modification (i.e., puts restrictions on eating and monitors the child); the child becomes both hungry and defiant; the child begins sneaking food.
Binge eating often follows. Other eating disorders may develop, and the child is frequently left with lifelong body image, weight, health, and general self-esteem issues.
Needless to say, there are productive ways to teach a child about nutrition. We should all know about nutrition.
However, this video and advice are not focused on nutrition, they are focused on some little kid gorging herself like the cartoon fat pig, and the perceived fact that the fat and guilty parents let the child gorge at home, and that this gorging behavior was presumably encouraged throughout the family because the parents and all the other children were “obese.”
According to the video, they were not just obese, but tubs of lard. But I will try not to digress.
We haven’t the slightest idea whether, much less why, the parents and other children are obese. The obese mother of the fat pig daughter apparently responded to an inquiry and stated she “wanted to focus on who the children are on the inside, not on the outside.” Call Child Protective Services, stat! But rational responses have no place in knee-jerk bigoted judgment, as we all know.
So if not outright judgment, the next best thing is modeling behavior. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with modeling behavior, especially if it is modeling healthful behavior in a productive and thoughtful manner. But let me tell you what another 50 hours of interviews focused on: modeling behavior that helped to perpetuate the same things behavior modification did.
The cycle is perpetuated when children (especially girls) learn by watching their parents (especially mothers) diet and demonstrate disordered eating, as well as obsessions and compulsions with food, body image and self- deprecation. The cycle continues.
Let’s take this letter, video, and advice at face value. What we saw is a “concerned” mother catching a quick bite for the kids at a drive-through fast food joint. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, except she’s the “concerned” one.
Then out to dinner, and since the place had a kids’ meal, it probably wasn’t comprised of brown rice, broccoli, and tofu. Nothing necessarily wrong with that either, except she’s the “concerned” one.
She wants to model “good behavior,” but there is no indication that this "concerned" mother has anything good to model. All we know about her is that her kid was apparently less hungry than her friend, and she thinks the friend is fat, that the family is obese, and that they all gorge at home. Oh, and the tub of lard mother wants her child to focus on the inside, not the outside. That’s all we know.
From that, we get the questionable (at best) advice, and this video. Granted, Slate probably doesn’t have a large child following, but this video, aside from being offensive in nearly every conceivable way, is a cartoon. Who are the predominant viewers of cartoons? (That’s a rhetorical question).
What happens when (not if, because although children are not the target audience of Slate, they do spend plenty of time on the Internet, and things tend to get around on the Internet) children view this? Might larger children feel shame? Might children who are prone to bully larger children be likely to use this as fodder and justification for more bullying?
Might parents respond with fear, humiliation, and “concern,” and not realize that perhaps this video is inherently wrong, morally and factually, and take “take action”? Might society at large find this “funny because it’s true” and act accordingly –- with even more judgment and discrimination?
Might doctors feel the pressure that they aren’t “doing enough” about the “childhood obesity epidemic” and redouble their efforts to fix the problem in the same counterproductive ways they have been doing for generations? Might people like me (who were fat children, and are now fat adults primarily because of a lifetime of bad advice and attempts at being fixed, first by others and then ourselves) speak up only to be mocked for being lazy, ignorant, deluded, gluttonous, fat pigs?
Might this make things worse for those who respond with drastic attempts to lose weight, which lead to eating disorders, additional weight gained, emotional trauma and physical and medical consequences?
A misguided woman wrote a letter to an advice columnist who gave at the very least poor advice, and this truly disgusting video was made to illustrate it all. And the cycle perpetuates, like an enormous tub of lard rolling uncontrollably down a hill, right over our children.